Sunday, December 07, 2008

Reader's Diary #420- Philip S. Foner: The Case of Joe Hill / Dean Hill & Fred Thompson: Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter

One of my musical discoveries earlier this year was Paul Robeson. I don't know why he just crossed my radar in 2008, but I've been really digging that low, low yet wonderfully controlled voice. He almost makes Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen sound like the Bee Gees. His versions of "Go Down Moses," "Old Man River," and "Gloomy Sunday" are of course classics, but the song that really does it for me is "Joe Hill."

I'd been listening to that tune over and over again for some time when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran back in April and came upon author Nafisi's use of Hill's song lyrics.

Well, as interests are wont to do, my Robeson fixation soon became a Joe Hill fixation-- but except for downloading a few song covers and wishlisting a few books, I was getting nowhere. Until recently. Back in October I helped a friend of mine go through his insanely huge book collection. Noting an abundance of leftist, anarchist, and political punkish type books, I figured it was probably a safe bet he'd have some Joe Hill info on hand. And I figured correctly. Right away I was set up with Philip S Foner's book The Case of Joe Hill and Dean Nolan and Fred Thompson's zine-esque biography Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter.

The two texts complemented each other well, especially for a Joe Hill novice like myself. Nolan and Thompson offer a brief but succinct biography of Hill, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S. who became an iconic figure in the labour movement, primarily as a poet and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the Wobblies, as they are sometimes called.

While Foner does offer some biographical background, his main focus is the trial of Joe Hill, who was charged with murder in 1915. Occasionally the book gets bogged down in all the appeals and requests for appeals, especially since most readers already know the final outcome. Plus, like Nolan and Thompson's text, there's an occasional slip into saintliness that smacks of propaganda. I still believe it's possible Hill killed John G. Morrison, but I have to go with Foner, Nolan, Thompson and the many others who say that Hill did not have a fair trial. Had he been given a fair trial, he would have walked: the prosecution didn't have enough evidence at all. Clearly his involvement in the IWW was behind the ruthless discarding of justice. Did his execution actually further the IWW's cause? Possibly. But on the other hand, Hill's life was cut short. Who's to say he wouldn't have accomplished more alive than dead?

Anyway, I got my Joe Hill fix and now I'm ready to move on to the next flavour of the month. Let's see...Clarence Birdseye? Anne Boleyn? GG Allin?


Kelly said...

Cool, I need to check that out.

Remi said...

If you want more Wobbly music, check out Utah Phillips' great live disc 'We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years'. It was recorded in Vancouver and is a great assemblage of Wobbly tunes and stories and lore.

Useless info - Joe Hill is also the pen name of one of Stephen King's sons who writes horror stories.

John Mutford said...

MyUtopia: He's an interesting character no doubt about it.

Remi: Thanks for the heads up. I knew that about Stephen King's son. His real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, though Joe Hill's real name was also Joseph Hillstrom (at least his Americanized name). Still, if King's son was going to try and step out of his father's shadow, I wish he'd also tried to step out Hill's. Though I guess there's something creepy about the whole, "'I never died,' says he" line that's fitting for a horror writer.